He who stands on tiptoe
doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can’t know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can’t empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 24, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we talked about how to open ourselves to the Tao, to be one with the Tao, and embody it completely. Then, Lao Tzu said, we can trust our natural responses and everything will fall into place. Today’s chapter is a contrast to yesterday’s chapter. It tells about what happens when we go against nature. If we want to accord with the Tao, we need to stop doing these things.
Why do we stand on tiptoe? Usually, it is because we are reaching for something just out of reach. But Lao Tzu isn’t shaming the vertically-challenged, here. It is okay that you sometimes have to stand on tiptoe to reach for a plate or a glass in a cupboard. But it is completely unnatural for us to always be standing on tiptoe. That is a metaphor for reaching for things before they are here. If it is beyond your reach, perhaps, it is because you should wait for it. Maybe it will never be within your reach, and maybe, just maybe, that is for the best. You cannot maintain your balance, while standing on tiptoe. You won’t stand firm.
When we aren’t reaching for things beyond our grasp, we are rushing ahead. We need to be going with the flow of the Tao. Trying to outpace it, won’t get us ahead. Rushing ahead of the perfect timing of the Tao, just isn’t natural; and we won’t go far.
A couple of chapters back, Lao Tzu said of the Master, “Because he doesn’t display himself, people can see his light.” That is our example for being in accord with the Tao. We need to be content to let the Tao shine in us. When we try to shine our own light, we only dim it.
Then, there is our constant need to affix labels to ourselves. Even those of us that claim to eschew labels are guilty of this. Do we fear being labeled by others? Is that why we are so quick to try and define ourselves? But, the problem with what we think we know about ourselves is that we are self-deluded. We only think we know. We don’t know who we really are. Indeed, we can’t.
Lao Tzu spends a great deal of his time speaking to those who try to exercise power over others. He reserves his harshest criticism for those who try to control others. Philosophical Taoism isn’t about others. It is about the individual. It is a very individualistic approach to living. You need to focus on you. And leave others to take care of themselves. This individualism is what drew me to philosophical Taoism, in the first place. When you don’t try and control others, when you trust them and leave them alone, you empower them; and, at the same time, you empower yourself. When you have power over others, they become powerless; and, so do you.
Lao Tzu wraps things up with our attitude about the work we do. If we cling to it, we will create nothing that will endure. If we want to accord with the Tao, we need to know when to let go. When is that? We make things way too complicated. It isn’t complicated. It is really quite simple. Just do your job, then let go. Anything more than that and we are only practicing the other unnatural ways we find to behave. Standing on tiptoe. Rushing ahead. Trying to shine. Defining yourself. That is no way to work; and, no way to live.